Wednesday, November 08, 2017


Last season, Richard Nelson's Gabriel Family trilogy was a comforting beacon in a traumatic time. Watching the tight-knit Rhinebeck family mourn their dead, contemplate their future, prepare homey meals around a beaten wooden table, and talk--wearily, anxiously--about American politics in the months leading up to the presidential election felt weirdly, sadly comforting: these fictive people, like the real ones I sit amongst, have had the rug ripped out from them, but here we all are, strong and clear-eyed, together. I'm forever grateful to Nelson for that cycle, which made me a fan. So when the Public announced that it had commissioned Illyria, a Nelson play about the Public Theater in its very earliest days, I snapped up tickets as soon as they became available.

Joan Marcus
I suppose I needn't have been so hasty. Even though the Public is giving some of the tickets to Illyria away free in the lobby 90 minutes prior to every performance, the house during the performance I saw was about 3/4 full. I guess this is why I feel compelled to mention the obvious every time I write about him: Richard Nelson's plays are really, really, really just not for everyone.

They work for me, though. Illyria might not feel like quite the lifeline the Gabriel plays were a year ago, but I found it to be similarly comforting and moving just the same. Maybe it's the presence of more beaten wooden tables, or the food that inevitably appears atop them. Or maybe it's that the pretty ordinary-seeming men and women who debate, fight, plan, and kibbitz while sitting around those tables are all at least partly responsible for the beloved institution Nelson often writes (and directs) for in the first place.

Set in 1958, well before the Public was ensconced in its current home at 425 Lafayette Street and only shortly after its mobile stage unit broke down on the lawn beneath Belvedere Castle, Illyria depicts the organization's very early history without ever coming off too much like a Wikipedia page. Conversation, typically ultra-natural, steers clear of obvious exposition (one or two exceptions--"remember how we met? With that show at that time in that place? My, that was swell"--clash pretty clearly with the rest of the dialogue). Still, the play manages enough detail for audience members who know very little about Papp or the Public to make sense of what's going on. We learn, for example, that Papp (John Magaro) is stubborn, controlling and not an especially effusive or attentive family man (Kristen Connolly plays Peggy, the second of his four wives). We learn that he has recently been called before the House Un-American Activities Committee, and fired from his day job at CBS (not mentioned in the play: he entered arbitration to get the job back just so he could quit, because he was hilariously oppositional and thus a total badass). And we learn how singularly obsessed he is with realizing his vision of bringing free theater to the people of New York City.

Of course, we also learn about the Public in the process: its scrappy origins and its near-desperate reliance on up-and-coming white-hot talent like Colleen Dewhurst (Rosie Benton) and George C. Scott (never depicted, but drunk as a lord nonetheless). We meet some of its earliest champions; Emma Duncan and John Sanders are Gladys and Stuart Vaughan, Papp's first assistant and go-to director, respectively; their marriage is even more obviously doomed than Papp's is to Peggy. And we get plenty about just how rootless the organization is, and how shaky it is financially.

It's no spoiler to note that it all works out okay in the end, if not for any of the couples then most certainly for the Public. Nelson leaves Illyria's characters, tipsy and taking a moment to celebrate the closing of Twelfth Night, sitting together  and passing a flask on a rainy lawn in Central Park--strong and clear-eyed, together--at the site of what will eventually become the Delacorte Theater. Fifty years later, the story of the Public is still unfolding

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